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Univercells revolutionizes the production of messenger RNA vaccines

Two Belgian companies, Univercells and eTheRNA, have changed the manufacturing processes for messenger RNA vaccines. This will allow the development of the first anti-covid vaccine of African origin.

Bet won for José Castillo: a year after announcing the creation of Quantoom Biosciences, a subsidiary specializing in messenger RNA, the co-founder and chief technical officer (CTO) of the Univercells group has signed an agreement for the development of the very first anti-Covid-19 vaccine of African origin, based on this technology.

The partnership, which was concluded with the South African company Afrigen Biologics, concerns the development of a new messenger RNA vaccine using the intellectual property of the collaboration partners, as well as the development of new intellectual property aimed at increasing access to the vaccine. Afrigen and Univercells will be supported in this collaboration by the Flemish biotech eTheRNA, also specialized in mRNAwhich has developed a technology allowing the use of ordinary refrigerators and avoiding the constraint of storage at very low temperatures.



Currently, African countries import 99% of the vaccines they use.

Major challenges

Partners will join forces to address two major challenges that have hampered the deployment of Covid-19 vaccines in Africa and other low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), that is, the lack of profitable local production and the need for cold or super cold chains.

Currently, African countries import 99% of the vaccines they use. This lack of local production has contributed to the current difficulties in the deployment of the anti-covid vaccine. Although more than 60% of the world’s population has been fully immunized, some LMICs have not yet been able to administer a first dose to 1% of their population.

Afrigen will host this new collaboration at its Cape Town sites. The company serves as a global mRNA vaccine technology transfer center of the World Health Organization (WHO) and works to facilitate the production of mRNA vaccines at more than 15 designated production sites in low-income countries around the world.

Ladder climb

“We have radically changed the paradigm for what is called scaling up.”

Jose Castillo

CEO of Quantoom Biosciences

This deal was made possible by to the know-how of Quantoom. The company of Nivelles has developed in record time an mRNA production technology with a significantly higher efficiency than existing methods. “We radically changed the paradigm for what is called scaling up and the transition to large volumes, by implementing a reaction at very small volumes, of the order of 20 milliliters, on a continuous basis”, explains José Castillo, who runs Quantoom. “We reinvented the way of producing, the bioreactor, all the pieces of the puzzle… All the results that I obtained on a small scale show that I have an easier process to implement, which will be much less costly in terms of scaling up“, he indicates.

new ingredients

But that’s not all, says José Castillo. “For now, I provide a solution with the current ingredients. But we have a redevelopment plan for ingredients and reagents. To do this, I will have to reinvent chemical molecules and therefore set up my own manufacturing processes. But these are two-year projects. I wanted to provide a solution right away, consuming less. And when customers want to produce hundreds of millions of doses, I will be ready to go to large quantities at bargain prices, of the order of a factor of 100.”

An original product

The future messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19 that Afrigen will produce will not be a licensed production or an intellectual property free copy, but an original product with the same efficacy as other messenger RNA vaccines. “The coronavirus, and its spike protein, are very well known”, underlines the CEO of Quantoom. “The protein has been sequenced, we can download it to define the genetic code of the RNA which, after injection, will trigger the production of the protein in the body. Afrigen will therefore end up with an RNA different from that of Moderna or BioNTech, but who can do the same.”

In regulatory terms, this changes a lot of things: it will no longer be necessary to carry out an efficacy study with 30,000 people. “The marketing authorization can therefore probably be done with 3,000 volunteers rather than 30,000. Which is fundamental in terms of costs”, rejoices José Castillo.

“We can compare this to the passage, in the African continent, to mobile telephony, which was achieved by skipping the stage of fixed telephony.”

Jose Castillo

CEO of Quantoom

After Africa, twenty other potential users in Africa, but also in Latin America and Southeast Asia, should follow and turn to Quantoom’s technology. Each of these candidates for technology transfer aims to become a regional producer and could supply doses for 200 to 300 million inhabitants.

Beyond that, concludes José Castillo, the goal is to disseminate mRNA technologies worldwide“The goal is to teach people how to synthesize and design their mRNA. So they will be shown how to create the next vaccine. That’s why the WHO jumped on it right away. I am indeed convinced that the RNA is the technology that will unlock access to biotechnology in countries that do not have access to all of this today.You can compare this to the passage, in the African continent, to mobile telephony, which has achieved by skipping the stage of fixed telephony.”

The summary

  • Univercells and eTheRNA have entered into a cooperation agreement with Afrigen for the development of very first anti-covid vaccine of African origin.
  • This one will be based on messenger RNA technologywhich Univercells’ subsidiary, Quantoom Biosciences, managed to make easier and cheaper to implement.
  • Other manufacturing agreements under the aegis of the World Health Organization (WHO) should follow in other regions of the world.

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